Portugal and Santos owe debt of thanks to no-nonsense English manager

Portugal head coach Fernando Santos during the news conference

Think of Portugal and, the chances are, you will think of one person.

Cristiano Ronaldo has transcended the national team on their run to the Euro 2016 final, where they will face France in Paris on Sunday night and, for several reasons, it has been difficult to disentangle the two entities. Ronaldo likes it that way. His status as the team’s A-lister and leading man is matched by his ego, and Fernando Santos, the manager, has long sought to provide him with the platform to express himself. And, most importantly, to score.

There is also the narrative about how Ronaldo is desperate to atone for the defeat that he and his country suffered in the Euro 2004 final against Greece. Having won the lot at club level, the Real Madrid forward believes that a first major international trophy would secure his legacy as possibly the greatest player since Diego Maradona.

There is a paradox at work. Ronaldo has been fundamental, at times, during these finals – notably, in the 3-3 group stage draw against Hungary and the semi-final victory against Wales. But Portugal’s progress has been defined by something else, something broader and deeper. It has been their never-say-die spirit and work ethic, which has seen them complete comebacks and, generally, tackle and hustle like demons.

Santos has instilled it but, when he cites his inspiration, it comes as a surprise. “Jimmy Hagan is a very big reference for me,” Santos says. “The way he coached was very important to me. I learned a lot from Jimmy Hagan.”

Hagan’s is a name that might not be familiar to some readers. Born in County Durham, he was a gifted inside-forward, who spent almost all of his career at Sheffield United. He won one cap for England in 1948 and 16 more for the wartime team, which were not officially recognised. His managerial career in England comprised stints at Peterborough and West Brom but it was in 1970 that he made the move that changed his life and, in the process, that of Santos.

Benfica, who were driven by Eusebio, had reached the final of the 1968 European Cup, losing to Manchester United, and yet they had encountered a downturn. The players were resting on their laurels; they were not working hard enough. The club felt that a tough, English manager would be the answer – in those days, English managers were revered across Europe – and they reportedly offered the job to Sir Alf Ramsey, who said no. To much astonishment, they turned to Hagan.

He had been out of work for three years since his sacking by West Brom and he had the reputation not only as a disciplinarian but one who could fall out with players. At West Brom, Don Howe – the club captain and future Arsenal manager – had led a players’ strike after Hagan insisted that they wore shorts in training during a bitterly cold winter.

Hagan was a revelation at Benfica, winning the title in each of his three full seasons. He also won the Portuguese Cup in 1972, the year that he took the team to the semi-finals of the European Cup. Benfica were undefeated during the 1972-73 league campaign. Hagan was known for his shorter but more intensive – and, often, punishing – training sessions. Benfica had the skill; he gave them the strength. He would go on to work at five other Portuguese clubs, including two spells at Estoril, and he altered the dynamics of football in the country.

Santos watched it all first-hand, at the outset. He was a youth-team player at Benfica when Hagan was the manager and, when he moved to Estoril – the club were he spent almost all of his playing career – he would again work under Hagan. The parallels between the pair are clear. Santos is hard; he demands courage and sacrifice from his players, and he brooks no argument. One story from when he took over as the Greece manager in 2010 might have been told by Hagan.

Santos wanted to train at eight o’clock in the mornings but he was told by a players’ delegation that it would be impossible because of the traffic. “So, I changed it to 7am, saying that there ought to be no traffic at that time,” Santos says. “Then, they told me that they preferred 8am.”

Santos’s game-face is intimidating and he offers the impression that he is never far from a fit of rage. At the 2014 World Cup, he argued with the referee before Greece’s last-16 penalty shoot-out defeat against Costa Rica, was sent off and was later banned from the touchline. He took over from Paulo Bento as Portugal manager in September 2014 and he has yet to lose a competitive match with Portugal. All of the victories, apart from the 2-0 against Wales last Wednesday, have been by a single goal. His tournament record is good – he also took Greece to the quarter-finals of Euro 2012 – and there is a streetwise edge to his current team.

Hagan passed away in 1998 and Eusebio, his long-time friend, led the tributes. At this championship under Santos, his legend lives on.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by David Hytner in Paris, for The Observer on Saturday 9th July 2016 22.49 Europe/London

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